I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, called Sabra and Shatila.
My father had fled there at the tender age of 12 when Israel declared independence.
Growing up, my father told many stories about his life in Jaffa. He used to show me the deeds to my grandfather’s properties, the keys to the houses that were kept in tin cans.
He used to draw on sheets of paper the layout of his home, after decades still remembering every detail, as if he was ashamed of his refugee life.
Life in Sabra and Shatila was divided like the Indians and cowboys we watched in black-and-white through rabbit-eared antennae.
My cousins had a television we loved to watch when we had the chance. It was an escape from poverty and rejection, as I imagine television is for many.
But as a refugee, I had a window into a world that existed beyond the walls that imprisoned us in a life of poverty and hunger.
I can now see the “games” we played as children were tragic. Games that started at the sound of sirens.
First, we would hear the bombs sailing through the air. Everyone could identify the distinct sound of incoming versus outgoing missiles.
Then, the “cool” kids – the older, braver and smarter kids we looked up to – would showcase their expertise by telling us how big the last bomb was and what kind they knew it to be based on the sound.
After the banging and the shaking, we would emerge from under tables and desks or whatever shelter could be found on a moment’s notice and go looking for pieces of shrapnel we called “toys.”
The kid who picked up the most was the hero. A peer to be envied.
One time, crouched down and locked in my mother’s embrace, we listened to the abating sounds of outgoing bombs.
“I hope it kills them all,” I said to her.
“You hope it kills who?” she scolded with a harshness I was not used to. “Other children like you on the other side? Mothers like me?”
I squeezed my eyes shut under the folds of her clothing, trying not to weep.
This was a lesson my mother taught me at a young age: to see people as God’s creation, regardless of religion, race or political affiliation.
My mother did not have much education because she was a Syrian refugee living in the camp as well. Yet, she knew this basic fact of human dignity. We are all brothers and sisters in humanity.
This view ran counter to the constant political uprisings that stirred Sabra and Shatila. Political turmoil kept people pointing fingers and pitted against one another, usually revolving around religious association.
I am a professor in America now; I want to instill a new attitude in my students by providing them with the opportunity to learn firsthand from someone practicing a religion about which they know little to nothing.
At the end of the semester, each student gives a presentation based on his or her experiences.
One of the most memorable presentations came recently from a young woman in my class who chose to learn from the Jewish community.
She was visiting the synagogue the day the Pittsburg shooting happened. She was sitting in the service when the rabbi received three calls in a row on her phone, which seemed to be some kind of coded message for an emergency.
“We have a code red,” the rabbi said to the congregation. The rabbi immediately instructed security to shut the doors. My student said she had never felt so scared in her life.
“Why would someone be that hateful?” she asked. “Why would you shoot someone because of their religion?”
The whole class was tearful. I was tearful. Many attitudes in that classroom were changed that day. Many gained a deeper understanding of what hate and love look like.
Having come from a place in the world where Jews are not friends with Muslims, Muslims are not friends with Christians, and there is plenty of pain to go around, it was through relationships that I learned none of us is a natural-born enemy.
The world is a Thanksgiving table at which I sit – a Palestinian-Syrian refugee, with my wife, of Native American and Hispanic descent, my children and in-laws, white, brown and black – and we talk about the Trail of Tears, slavery, immigration, islamophobia. One celebrates, while the other mourns.
Our turkey is wrapped in tobacco leaves and stuffed with garbanzo beans. It is deep fried in olive oil and basted in enchilada sauce and served on a bed of rice.
We laugh and eat and pray together, and we all have a seat at the table.
Editor’s note: Enchassi will be the featured speaker at a Good Faith Media virtual workshop at 4 p.m. EDT June 25 during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s online 2020 General Assembly. Enchassi’s story is told in the EthicsDaily.com short documentary, “Mercy.” His newly published memoir, “Cloud Miles,” is available from Nurturing Faith.
This article is part of a series for World Refugee Day (June 20). Other articles in the series include:
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